[Partly edited and reorganized, 1/17/04 and 9/23/11.  Note that this is frustrating material for me because I have to take long and fascinating stories and make them short and dull.  The stories of many of these figures make for great reading.  Alexander Dumas, for instance, drew on the history of this era for his Three Musketeers series.  Wonderful books, often turned into pretty decent movies.  Well worth your time.]

The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of tremendously rapid change.  Change is always difficult, especially when changes come too quickly.  The Thirty Years' War is one example of the kind of conflicts one might have in trying to cope with too-rapid change.  But it wasn't just the Holy Roman Empire that had problems.  Virtually all countries in Europe struggled in one way or another in trying to cope with the changes coming about in the 16th and 17th centuries.  France, for instance, had the same kinds of problems as the rest of Europe: political, social and economic tension made worse by religious division.  Even competent rulers and officials had trouble governing France at this time.

Economic Problems

Like the rest of Europe, France had to deal with rapid inflation and falling real wages brought on by the influx of New World gold.  Also, France had a special problem with taxation.  The French kings relied on tax farmers who put in their own pockets any "extra" money collected.  Only 25% of the money collected got to the king!  This meant high taxes, but not enough revenue for the king to do his job properly.

Social Problems

As in many other countries in Europe, 16th and 17th century France had a rising middle class unhappy because it had no political say and nobles unhappy because they had lost some of their power and authority.  Either group might be tempted to lead or at least participate in a civil war.

Religious Division

Also, similar to much of the rest of Europe, France was troubled by religious division.  France at one time had been united by its allegiance to Roman Catholicism, but in the 16th century, John Calvin's teachings began to spread widely.   Many of the friars, disgusted with the spectacle of wealthy higher church officials who had no spiritual vocation at all, converted to Calvinism and worked to spread the new movement.  Many bourgeoise types, perhaps eyeing the wealth of the church which was being so badly misused, likewise converted to the Calvinist faith.  And
many nobles converted, some because they thought Calvin right, others because Calvinism was a convenient excuse for resisting the growing power of the Catholic kings of France. These tensions led to French Wars of Religion (1562-1589). 

Once started the wars were difficult to stop.  There was a lull in the fighting in 1572, and King Charles IX wanted to make peace.  He arranged a marriage between his sister, Margaret of Valois, and Henry of Navarre, a leader of the Calvinists.  The wedding was to be held in Paris on St. Bartholemew’s Day
.  Charles advisors told him he couldn't trust Calvinists, and persuaded him to give the order (which he later regretted greatly) to kill all the Calvinist nobles who had come up to Paris for the wedding and were not prepared to offer much resistence.

Word spread that it was acceptable to kill Calvinists, so people used the occasion to settle all sorts of private disputes.  Debtors killed Calvinist creditors.  Rejected suitors killed Calvinists who had turned them down.  Students killed Calvinist teachers (e.g., Petrus Ramus!).  Thirteen thousand people were killed during the "Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre," and the  wars of religion
continued.Henry of Navarre converted to Catholicism to save his life, but then decided he was a Calvinist after all and, gathering his forces together, led Calvinists to victory after victory.  By 1589, he held all France except Paris.  He converted to Catholicism again (!) so that Parisians would accept them as their king and he wouldn't have to destroy the city in order to include it in his dominions.  The undisputed king of all France, from here on out we call him King Henry IV!

Henry IV (1589-1610)

Henry was, for the most part, a very successful king.  His military victories meant that he had the nobles under his control.  Also, he worked hard at economic development and encouraged trade (settling French Canada and sponsoring the fur trade).  He drained swamps for more cultivated land.  He also was truly concerned with peasants, promising "a chicken in every peasant's pot every Sunday."  He adopted a wise religious policy, issuing the Edict of Nantes which made France Catholic (and prohibited Calvinist churches near Paris) but allowed Calvinists to practice their religion openly elsewhere and gave them control of certain fortified cities.

Henry was hated by extreme Catholics and Calvinists.  In 1610, a Catholic extremist got to him.  Henry's carriage got stuck in traffic, and one of his opponents stabbed him to death.  Henry left as his heir a 9-year old son--Louis XIII.

[This is one of the many places I have to skip over a long and fascinating story.  Henry had had a stormy relationship with his Margaret of Valois.  Ultimately, that marriage was annulled (c. 1599), and Henry married Marie de' Medici while Margaret kept the title queen.  Margaret apparently was a partial inspiration for Shakespeare's Love's Labors Lost and for a novel written by Dumas.]

Marie de'Medici

For a time, Henry's wife, Marie de'Medici, ruled as regent for her son.  She was a good diplomat, averting a pending war with Spain.  She picked good administrators (e.g., Concini and  Cardinal Richelieu).   But the nobles didn't want her to succeed, and undermined her, using the fact that she was foreign and a woman to stir up trouble.  They also egged on Louis to oppose his mother--not too hard since the King of France was whipped at his mother's orders well into his teen years!

The division in the royal family was exactly what the nobles wanted, weakening royal authority and letting them run things as the liked.  Eventually, Louis’ supporters drove Marie into exile and killed some of her administrators (including Concini).

Louis XIII

Things were not easy for Louis. His mother desperately wanted to return to a position of power and influence, and Louis had to twice put down revolts led by his brother.  But Cardinal Richelieu, intially a supporter of Marie but a man who, for the good of France, transferred his support ot Louis, brought about a reconciliation of Louis and Marie and worked in other ways to increase Louis' power.  Together, Richelieu and Louis were a formidable team, and France becomes Europe's strongest country militarily and economically.  The Thirty Years' War is one example of their success. Although a high church official, Cardinal Richelieu encouraged Louis to support the Protestant side in the Thirty Years' War--and this policy paid off.  The weakening of Hapsburg power left France the strongest power in Europe.

Louis and Richelieu were, however, rather tough on peasants.  Richelieu felt peasants were like donkeys: they got spoiled if you didn't give them enough work. Richelieu died in 1642, Louis in 1643, and this presented a bit of difficulty.  Who would continue their policies?  Louis' heir was his 5 year old son, Louis XIV--obviously, a boy not old enough to reign.

Anne of Austria

Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII, ended up ruling as regent for her son.  She was a decent ruler, helped by Cardinal Mazarin. Her ability to play the political game is illustrated by her ability to become regent in the first place. Her husband hadn't wanted this to happen: he didn't like Anne, and suspected her of cheating on him.  Perhaps Louis XIV wasn't even his son.  But Anne played her cards right, and ended up, for a time, as the de facto ruler of France.

But Anne faced all sorts of problems with the nobles.  They used against her the fact that she was female, a foreigner, and a Hapsburg.  Eventually, riots (the Fronde) drove her out of Paris, and some of her officials were killed.  And the nobles once again had what they wanted.

Louis XIV

However, when Louis XIV finally took over as king in fact as well as in name, he figured out how to deal with nobles. He constructed a magnificent palace at Versailles, and if a noble wanted a favor from Louis, they absolutely had to come to Versailles.  There ended up hundreds of nobles living at Versailles, all looking for any opportunity they could find to get Louis' attention. And, of course, while they are doint that, they aren’t plotting against him.  Nobles are dangerous on their own estates where they can cook up plots right and left.  But, at Versailles, the nobles end up spying on each other so that they can gain an excuse to tell Louis they have important information for him--and so that they can have the opportunity to ask whatever particular favor they want the king to grant.

Meanwhile, Louis turns to the middle class types to actually administer the country--often getting more competent officials as a result.  By the end of his reign, France is more powerful and wealthier than ever before.  80% of tax revenue gets where its supposed to go.

But there is a price to be paid-loss of French liberty.  Louis becomes an absolute monarchy: there's no check on his authority. In 1685, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes the Calvinists (Huguenots) converted, went into exile, or died.  Even Catholics were not as free as they had been: one had to be the right type of Catholic, one who accepted the authority of the King above even the Pope.

The system Louis created, absolute monarchy, seemed to work well though.  It seemed to solve many of problems France faced.  Was there a better solution?  Well, maybe. Next  time, we'll look at England, a country that faced the same kinds of problems, but solved them very differently.